When the power of messaging fails to persuade about vaccinations, what is left to promote public good?

by Bob Schwartz

It is sad but inevitable to see that in America, and especially in some parts of the country, it is possible that the Covid vaccination rate of total population may barely hit 50%. There are already explanations offered up, analysis that includes pandemic fatigue, hesitancy, ideological objections, and so on. In the end, if the number of the vaccinated is that low, we may find ourselves saying: Oh well, we tried everything, we fought the good fight. That’s unfortunately how it goes in America.

This doesn’t mean we’ve given up. Now that vaccine supply is adequate and distribution points are expanding, there are three paths available.

The path that has been promoted almost from the first of the pandemic is messaging. The right people saying the right words and showing the right pictures about the right behavior for personal and public well-being. Unless you slept through the first pandemic year, you will know that among a large number of Americans, for various reasons, this proved ineffective.

Then there’s the incentive and reward option. Dunkin Donuts, for example, has offered to give every vaccinated American one free donut every day for the rest of the year. (My favorite snack food and a favorite bright spot in an otherwise dark time.) Should we be paying people to get vaccinated, thus saving some of the enormous public health costs that endemic Covid will later burden us with? It’s a thought. For some people, money trumps ideology.

Finally, there’s the path that is not about persuasion or incentive. It is about, not to sugar coat it, coercion. Maybe soft coercion, but sticks rather than carrots. If people choose to be public health menaces, which unvaccinated people behaving in pre-pandemic ways are, they may lose privileges enjoyed by their more responsible neighbors. “Freedom loving” ideologues object, since the freedom to infect others with a strange and deadly disease is said to be an American right, if you properly listen to the Founding Fathers and read the Constitution.

Words are powerful, and good words can do good. So can good pictures and good videos. Messaging does serve. But that power is limited. When the words fall on deaf or hostile ears, when anyone can conveniently get a vaccination but fewer and fewer do, when it is summer 2021 and only half of America is fully vaccinated, what do we do then?

Oh well.